Mary Seacole: The Ultimate Role Model

(16 pages, pdf. Available for download on the Mersey Care NHS Trust website.)

The description of Mary Seacole is factually wrong throughout. The picture provided is also misleading. A fine portrait, it shows Seacole wearing medals, although she never was awarded any, nor ever claimed any.

How about some concrete examples for the opening claim that Seacole “was the first example of someone from overseas who made an overwhelming difference to health care in the UK.” What? The one contribution she is known to have made is the donation of cholera pills and bottles in the 1866 cholera epidemic. But since we do not know what was in them, and there was no effective treatment then, they likely did no good, and possibly were harmful. Seacole, alas, like doctors, used toxic substances like lead and mercury in her “remedies” for cholera.

Yes, Seacole did encounter prejudice, as do NHS workers, and not only in the 20th century. But let’s be clear that she herself was a well-off businesswoman and property owner (houses and investments) and never worked a day in her life in a hospital.

Seacole called her mother “Creole,” not black, nor did she ever identify as a black herself. She employed blacks, and travelled with two black servants. She called her mother a “doctress,” not nurse, and said she learned “doctress” skills from her. Her husband may have been “a godson of Lord Nelson,” as claimed, but there is no evidence for this.

The story is entirely wrong that Seacole “set off for England” as soon as she heard about war raging. Nor did she offer her services “to the nursing agencies recruiting for the war effort,” but went to England instead, from Panama, where she had been making money in a business providing for men going through Panama to the California Gold Rush. Her own memoir mentions no formal application to become a nurse, but only a process of dropping into government offices, all too late.

Far from the truth is the statement that “even Florence Nightingale refused her an interview,” for Nightingale had already left for the war while Seacole was still busy in London on her gold stocks. Seacole explains this perfectly clearly in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. She was too late, according to this account, even to join the second group of nurses sent. Yet the NHS Northwest story suggests that Nightingale refused to meet with her for reasons of racism. Seacole would not agree, but indeed recounted their one meeting as being cordial (see her memoir!).

The story is wrong also when Seacole did make it to the front–Nightingale helping her with a bed for the night at the hospital en route.

The “British Hotel” Seacole set up was not for troops, as stated, but officers. She did provide “hot meals and other basic home comforts,” but to officers, for a price, nor did she ever claim that her business was for soldiers.

The “looking after the sick and wounded” is an exaggeration, for Seacole missed the first three, major, battles of the war. She did give assistance to relatively healthy walk-ins to her store. She did get on to the battlefield on three occasions, but please be clear that this was post-battle, after selling food and drink to spectators, and hardly constituted “daring exploits.”

Seacole’s kindness and good humour were appreciated. She sent the occasional treat to patients at the nearest hospital, which was not for soldiers but transport workers. On arrival in the Crimea, before her business opened, she provided hot tea, cake and lemonade to soldiers on the Balaclava wharf waiting transport to the general hospitals. This deserves praise, but is hardly a “daring” exploit or an “overwhelming” contribution.

The war did not end “suddenly” as the NHS story has it, for the army did not begin to leave the Crimea until six months after the last fighting. Seacole’s bankruptcy was the result of a bad business decision–she and her partner counted on business continuing longer after the last battle. “My restaurant was always full,” she explained, for officers had more leisure, could dine out and go on excursions, which she catered.

Seacole was celebrated on her return. Eminent people did support her when she was in need, but not “many of the soldiers she had cared for,” who hardly had money to do so. Her debts were not paid off, but a fund raised to provide her an annuity. Her retirement years were comfortable and she left a good sum of money on her death.

Should we not expect a reasonably accurate account by NHS hospitals on their websites? If this level of following fashion, instead of the facts, is acceptable, how can we count on any information they put out?